Outside of my love for the stories of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, I’ve never been a huge fan of science fiction. Alien and Blade Runner, coincidentally envisioned by the same director, are probably the only sci-fi movies I still watch repeatedly.
Which may be why the utter genius of Apple TV’s Severance took me by surprise. No need to mince words here: It’s the best cable drama I’ve seen since Breaking Bad, and nothing else is even close.
I had the misfortune of losing my last two graphic design jobs when two separate creepy New York hedge fund investors bought the publishing companies where I worked and promptly began disemboweling them, so Severance’s acute, otherworldly depiction of dehumanizing corporate culture struck a big nerve. The story is about a mysterious company in the hills of Pennsylvania called Lumon that only hires new employees if they agree to be “severed” by a chip implant in their head, separating them into two selves. An “innie” works an eight-hour day “refining” cryptic data numbers, while the “outie” still lives a normal life outside of work with no knowledge or memory of anything they do at the office. Adam Scott plays Mark S., the perfect officious everyman who severed himself for Lumon after his wife died in an accident, and he’s joined in his four-way cubicle cluster in the center of a massive empty room by John Torturro (effete company man Irving), short, overweight and ornery Dylan (Zach Cherry), and skeptical newcomer Helly, played by the wonderful and arresting Britt Lower. With a coolly tyrannical Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette) calling the shots and a robot-like Mr. Milchik (Trammell Tillman) as her HR enforcer and dispenser of idiotic company perks (coffee cozies, waffle parties, etc.), it’s only a matter of time before the “Lumonaries” start questioning not only who they really are, but what the hell the company does.
Executive producer Ben Stiller also directed six of the episodes, and his crack visual team that includes cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagné, Production Designer Jeremy Hindle and Art Director Angelica Borrero create a workplace that is familiar, darkly funny, and terrifying. Lumon’s hallways are white, sterile, and nightmarishly endless, making the viewer feel as lost and trapped as the main characters are. Severance’s perfect narrative is also more suspenseful and thought-provoking with every episode. By the time the incredible ninth chapter and season finale ended, I didn’t just want to see Season Two immediately, but was ready to watch Season One all over again. It’s that good.
I haven’t even mentioned the unforgettable supporting role for Christopher Walken, playing Lumon’s aging, gay art collector, or Theodore Shapiro’s melancholy piano theme woven throughout the show and placed over the main credits—which happen to be the best of their kind since Don Draper fell through the air in Mad Men and landed on a couch with a cigarette.
It’s extremely rare for any film or TV series to be as expertly assembled as Severance, and when one comes along, it’s an inspiration to us all.